After Peyton Manning put the ultimate exclamation point on his already-stellar career, the Colts made little attempt to keep their championship roster intact or to buy free agents.
They will spend training camp plugging in replacements for departed starting cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David, leading tackler Cato June, and one of their Super Bowl running back heroes, Dominic Rhodes. They also lost slot receiver Brandon Stokley, defensive tackle Montae Reagor, safety Mike Doss and linebacker Gilbert Gardner, who all started games last season. They must replace return specialist Terrence Wilkins as well. Their most familiar free agent signing was backup guard Rick DeMulling, a former Colt who spent some time in Detroit.
Not to worry. None of this came as a surprise to general manager Bill Polian or coach Tony Dungy, who operate a football team as if they know exactly what they are doing, as their five-year regular season record of 60-20 would indicate.
At cornerback, they will insert third-year draftees Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, both of whom played well in the postseason. At weakside linebacker, it is time for second-year man Freddy Keiaho to step up. The Colts have lost linebackers Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington, David Thornton June and Gardner in the last four years and haven't really skipped a beat.
Last year, Dungy's remarkable defense managed to win a Super Bowl despite finishing last in the league in run defense, once thought to be an impossibility. Never fear, the Colts knew once safety Bob Sanders was healthy in the playoffs, things would be different. His recovery from left shoulder surgery will be an issue this summer, especially if he misses training camp with the promise of being ready for the season. He's obviously more crucial than other players at other positions.
Dungy is also hoping second-year cornerback Tim Jennings, hampered by injury as a rookie, can help at cornerback, where rookie draft picks Daymeion Hughes and Michael Coe also will get a chance.
Just as rookie Charlie Johnson stepped up big in place of right tackle Ryan Diem last season, including an extended Super Bowl stint, the Colts expect rookie Tony Ugoh to add depth to an offensive line that protects Manning.
The only place that appears unsettled is at running back, where rookie Joseph Addai was outstanding, but benefited by sharing time with Rhodes, who left for Oakland. Dungy liked the time-sharing arrangement, but entering training camp, the only viable alternatives are untested second-year prospect DeDe Dorsey and Canadian League prospect Kenton Keith.
Signing pass rusher supreme Dwight Freeney to a whopping six-year, $72 million contract assured that the Colts can continue to take advantage of the leads the defense enjoys, especially on the fast indoor turf.
To replace the valuable but oft-injured Stokley in the slot, the Colts expect top draft choice Anthony Gonzalez to step in immediately to take pressure off Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. With a healthy Dallas Clark, Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher at tight end, Manning needs only a reliable slot receivers like Gonzalez to keep the offense potent. Drafting 32d is never a guarantee of matching an athlete to a need, but in this case, the Colts had reason to celebrate. Harrison wasn't the first receiver drafted in his 1996 class either, but turned out to be the class of the crop. Gonzalez also brought along Ohio State teammate Roy Hall, a fifth-rounder who is 6-3, 240, and has been impressive in early workouts. Manning can always find room for good receivers.
With all-star left tackle Tarik Glenn entering his 11th season and due to become a free agent after the season, the Colts traded up to land Ugoh in the second round and came away with an athlete projected as a first-rounder by some, ensuring the team of future protection for Manning, who has never missed a game but still trails Brett Favre by almost a hundred.
If Dungy needs to motivate his team, he can point to consecutive road losses against division rivals Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston in December. By then the Colts usually have a playoff spot pretty well wrapped up, but they can no longer take the division for granted and ignore improvement from below. After their gala season-opening festivities against New Orleans, the Colts go on the road to Tennessee and Houston, then travel to Jacksonville in week seven. It is unusual to play six straight division games on the road, but if the Colts can start fast, they should be able to make another statement that this division still belongs to them.
CSN: Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been contacted by police investigating a possible homicide in North Attleboro, Mass. Hernandez is not believed to be a suspect but a rental car in his name is connected to the death.
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